Former Democratic-Farmer-Labor Sen. Rick Olseen represented Minnesota’s 17th Senate district, covering mostly rural territory just north of the Twin Cities, from 2007 to earlier this month. Less than a month after he assumed office, the chamber took up a controversial measure to increase senators’ per diem pay. The rate had been unchanged for twelve years, and the proposal was to increase it from $66 to $96 a day. DFL leadership reasoned at the time that the vote would be long forgotten by 2010. It was not.
“Some of the senior members were saying it was the right thing to do and it won’t be a big deal in four years,” says Olseen. “It turned out to be a huge deal.” Olseen says that during last year’s campaign, “every piece” of mail that he saw which was sent out by his Republican opponent, Sean Nienow, argued that when people were hurting economically, the Senate had raised its own pay. Olseen lost the election to Nienow by 4,602 votes of the 37,740 cast. Nienow’s victory was one of several improbable GOP wins in Minnesota that helped take the state Senate from a veto-proof Democratic majority to Republican control for the first time since 1972.
“I believe [the increase in pay] was one of the reasons why we lost the majority,” says Olseen. “The ironic thing was we didn’t need to take that vote.” Olseen points out that the Rules Committee could have simply instituted the per diem increase, but his party wanted to hold the vote for the sake of transparency.
In early 2007, when the vote was held, the economy was less of an issue than it is today. In hindsight, senators who voted for it might have had more political cover if the pay raise had been the subject of greater public debate. Nonetheless, the fact that the vote was scheduled as the first in the legislative session suggests that at least some were aware that it would be controversial.
“How do you defend it? The question is, ‘What should we get paid?’” asks Olseen. “[Voters] all think we are overpaid anyhow for a part-time job—as if representing 90,000 people is part time.” In retrospect, Olseen does believe that if he had targeted more undecided households for door-knocking, he might have been able to narrow the margin of his loss. He is, however, doubtful that it would have changed the ultimate outcome of the election.
Senator Nienow says that the pay raise was one of a number of issues referenced in his campaign mailers, which also emphasized the legislature’s record of spending away a budget surplus and decreasing school funding. However, he says that independent expenditure groups focused on the per-diem increase issue almost exclusively.
“The per diem vote is a catchy issue,” says Nienow. “It wasn’t a tiny nudge; it went from $66 to $96 a day, which is a 45 percent increase.” Sen. Nienow argues that it is ironic that the per-diem vote turned out to be so harmful to Democrats because, he claims, they scheduled it as a way of embarrassing Republicans who would vote against the resolution, but take the extra money anyway.
There were other issues that led to his and other Democrats’ defeat, Olseen says. These include the removal of tax breaks on farmland that was not being actively cultivated, which increased the tax burden on many in Olseen’s district. Another issue was the construction of a gas-burning power plant in his district, which alienated pro-environment Democrats. While Olseen says he has second thoughts on the farmland tax issue, he stands behind his embrace of the construction of the power plant. “[The plant] was a $500 million investment in the district,” says Olseen. “In this economy, how could you not support that?”
Part of Olseen’s district overlaps with Minnesota’s 8th congressional district where Republican newcomer Chip Cravaack surprised the political community by defeating seventeen-term Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar. “There was a tidal wave that swept the nation that I didn’t think would hit Minnesota that hard,” says Olseen. “It did. Of my freshman class of fifteen [senators], ten of us did not come back.”
Olseen unseated Sen. Nienow in 2006, and has not ruled out running again depending on the course of national political events and how the redistricting process affects his district.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at email@example.com